DES MOINES, Iowa — After camping out for weeks near the Iowa capitol, or about as far as you can get from the center of the financial universe on Wall Street, the few dozen protesters of Occupy Iowa stumbled on the perfect way to draw more attention to their cause.
They had something no other Occupy protest could match: the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
A mass of Occupy protesters could confront each of the candidates for president — in full view of the television cameras that follow each around the state — in the same way their Occupy Wall Street brethren have confronted bankers, traders and the financial sector in lower Manhattan.
"Our unique opportunity is being at the pressure point of the most powerful political leaders in the country, even in the world," said Ed Fallon, an Occupy Iowa organizer.
It was in the primaries of 2010, after all, that the tea party shifted from a protest to a movement, as anger among conservatives at President Barack Obama's health-care proposal and the nation's staggering debt moved from rowdy town hall meetings to the campaign trail.
But the calls from Occupy Iowa are, so far, going more or less unanswered. Fallon said it's too early to say how many might eventually arrive, but organizers in New York, Boston and Chicago said this week no one in their protest community is planning to attend. Some are scornful of the very idea they should attempt to affect change from within the existing political structure that the caucuses represent.
"We believe that the conversation is the way to start fixing policy," said Patrick Bruner, a spokesman for the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York's Zuccotti Park. "And that conversation will organically lead to solutions."
The Occupy protests began in New York's financial district in September as a demonstration against economic inequality, aimed primarily at the financial firms based nearby. Within weeks, similar protests in dozens of major cities and hundreds of smaller communities had formed under the Occupy banner, as protesters gathered in the public square to voice their opinions, argue positions and present grievances.
That approach would seem tailor-made for Iowa and its caucuses, a vestige of early American democracy that provides voters with unusually close access to candidates for months. Almost 17,000 Iowans, for example, convened at Iowa State University in August to meet many of the Republican candidates for president and vote at the state GOP's straw poll. And on caucus night, party activists gather at more than 1,700 precinct-level political party meetings where votes come after a final debate among neighbors.
"I mean, there's no more grassroots-oriented process than the Iowa caucuses, where an individual citizen gets to ask someone who wants to be president a direct question about what their plans are for addressing the challenges of the nation," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said.
That was Fallon's thought, too. While the caucuses themselves are open only to voters registered in Iowa, the frantic few weeks of retail politics leading up to Jan. 3 would allow Occupy protesters to confront candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination as directly, and perhaps more so, as those camping out near Wall Street can the bankers who work there.
A week later, anti-government, anti-corporation activists who have participated in some of the Occupy demonstrations even released an Internet video asking protesters to gather in Iowa to try and shut down the caucuses.
"I kind of doubt they are going to come around," Fallon said, referring to the candidates. "But we can get our point across and make them think about issues being raised."
Yet many Occupy protesters responded with distain at the idea of becoming involved at all in the political process, arguing that to participate in the caucuses or lobby for specific policy changes or candidates would condone an existing political culture they condemn.
"We're going to constantly make sure we don't get absorbed into mainstream politics," Occupy Chicago protester Kelvin Ho said. "The current political system on both sides, Democrats or Republicans, does not serve the needs of the 99 percent, and both parties need to reform."
It is true that protesters such as Fallon, a former Democratic state representative who sought his party's nomination for governor in 2006, have much more in common with Democrats than the Republicans running for president. Still, the early reluctance to engage in Iowa could be a sign the Occupy protesters are a long way from evolving into a counterweight to the tea party.
Two years ago, tea party activists who started as protesters turn their anger into electoral action and rallied to defeat incumbent Republicans they deemed insufficiently conservative in primary elections, and dozens of GOP candidates who later won in November proudly cite allegiance to the tea party's core beliefs.
This year, tea party leaders in Iowa put on a bus tour featuring the candidates and hosted a rally of thousands headlined by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Behind the scenes, they were putting together caucus training sessions and produced a DVD aimed at showing tea party activists how to participate in the caucuses.
"You just don't get that opportunity in other places," said Iowa Tea Party founder Ryan Rhodes, the impetus behind the group's caucus mobilization. "To not use it or to let it slip through your hands when you're in a state where your voice resonates louder would be throwing away an opportunity."
Associated Press writers Meghan Barr in New York, Christina Hoag in Los Angeles, Jay Lindsay in Boston and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.